Exhibitions are always political

The bracketing of the Hope To Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 exhibition at London’s Design Museum is interesting for many reasons. Starting with Shepard Fairey’s Hope campaign for Obama’s 2008 election, and (almost) finishing with Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball cap, these two items showcase how effective vacuous phraseology can be in winning over people’s emotions when asking them to vote on big decisions. Both speak to the human condition of wanting ‘better’, without actually defining what that ‘better’ might be. They leave it for the reader to appropriate the slogans and adapt them to their own set of desires.

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It has to be said the application of such sloganeering adds weight to the message—the words alone didn’t win their respective elections for each candidate. Fairey’s message appealed to the youth vote as much because they were street posters and were run counter (and unendorsed) to the official Democrat campaign; while baseball caps are everyday headgear worn by the everyman and everywoman of America. Each message is targetted precisely, whether strategically intentioned or not. What both tell us though is that logos do not win elections, neither for Obama in 2008 nor Clinton in 2016. As graphic communication devices, logos tend to be overly associated with corporate structures, despite both Obama’s and Clinton’s being applauded by design critics for their aesthetics, symbolism and ‘cleverness’. In thinking that these could help win around floating voters, it strikes me that the audience was ultimately forgotten, unlike with the street posters and baseball caps.

These are just a few of the thoughts I came away with after visiting Hope to Nope with a group of graphic design students the week it opened in April.

The Guardian is dead, long live The Guardian

Today sees the last copy of The Guardian in its Berliner format.

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What is about to follow will be known by those that come to this blog post after Monday 15 January 2018, when the new look Guardian is launched. But for now, only the new masthead has been revealed in a video teaser.

The teaser, and its corresponding print campaign, demonstrates some interesting references to John Stezaker covering found photographs with white squares, (and Jonathan Barnbrook’s subsequent ‘borrowing’ of this for David Bowie’s The Next Day), see Field Readings’ post Graphic obscura.

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The campaign cleverly suggests that The Guardian will still reserve space for commentary and opinions that tend not to be heard in other areas of the mainstream media, (with maybe the exception of the Channel 4 News). This, I believe, is the result of a sense of responsibility the paper feels to report accurately and critically in the face of an otherwise largely right-wing and conservative media. Its investigative journalism has broken some of the most important and disruptive news stories of the last decade, from Milly Dowler to Panama Papers. In these supposed post-truth times, long may this continue.

Can graphic design kill you?

There is an irony to the fact that four days after the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? exhibition opened at the Wellcome Collection, the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair kicked off at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands.

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Banksy’s submission to Art the Arms Fair

The former, in the words of Creative Review, showcases graphic design used to “educate, inform, persuade and even save lives. Items include anti-smoking stamps, anatomical pop-up books, a 17th century plague notice and a mural that uses illustration to explain the symptoms of Ebola to people in Africa.” Where as the latter, in the words of Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade will: “bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies.”

To Hull and back

In October last year I wrote about the visual identity for Hull City of Culture 2017. I’d mostly only ever heard negative things about the city but vowed to go there this year after seeing this deliberately attention grabbing piece of branding. Claire and I duly booked our summer holiday in the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds for last week so that we could take a day out in Yorkshire, and Hull did not disappoint.

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Crossing the Humber Bridge on the day its Grade 1 listing was announced, the Museum Quarter made for our first destination on reaching Hull, with the Streetlife Museum dramatically depicting the town’s everyday history. Time limited, we then veered towards the Fruitmarket ‘cultural quarter’ that friends had recommended, via some fine brutalist structures.

Run / ? / tell

In the aftermath of the recent horrendous Manchester and London terrorist attacks, I was puzzled by the imagery used to accompany a new police warning advising people to RUN, HIDE and TELL if they should find themselves in the midst of such a situation.

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Seeing this for the first time on the Channel 4 news, it puzzled me as to exactly what the middle image was. In focusing on trying to decode the visual I didn’t really read the word sitting beside it. As a result, I had to stare at the paused picture for some time before I saw what it was supposed to be—someone peeping out from behind an object. Before this realisation, my mind pictured it as a distorted question mark. In this, I also became aware that because of my confusion I was unwittingly put in the position of someone who didn’t read English, making the visual communication more important.

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Of course, deliberate ambiguity has a place in graphic design. In using negative space, the work of illustrator Noma Bar, or the classic of the genre, the Fed Ex arrow, are perfect examples of how duality in an image can captivate an audience and engage them intellectually. Once decoded, the viewer’s ego is massaged that they have ‘got it’. More importantly though—once seen, the previously hidden image can not be unseen, and this reinforces the message.

Now too, with the Run Hide Tell images, I cannot not see what the HIDE image is meant to be. But with that initial questioning of what I was looking at, my visual perception was confused. The fact that it took me a while to decode the image brings to question its effectiveness in a situation no one wants to find themselves in. In just such an instance, visual ambiguity is the last thing anyone needs.

Graphic commons: north-east of Ipswich

Distance: 4.2 miles
Steps taken: 9,687
Start time: 09:37
Ground covered: Small town centre, surrounding residential areas and seaside promenade

Any talk of Southwold and psychogeography is duty bound to include a mention of W.G. Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn. My drift around Southwold yesterday, as part of my continuing Graphic Commons project, did take me up Gunhill, and past both The Reading Room and The Crown, all of which Sebald discusses in his text. These though, are as much of a mention as Rings Of Saturn will get here.

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Spectacle fodder

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McDonald’s/Cineworld, Ipswich

Yesterday I took my grandson to see the Lego Batman Movie at a cinema complex in town. It was great fun, even if much of the film was a little over the head of the 7 year old boy.

Such cinema complexes aren’t my usual choice of venue for movie going. Several people had warned me about the price of popcorn prior to the visit, and I expected to be marketed at from all angles, so I didn’t think I was going with any illusions. But as much as I enjoyed the film, the experience was sullied by coming away feeling that the boy and I had just been fodder for a slick and well organised advertising industry.

Obviously I knew there would be advertisments before the film, and clearly a Lego movie is just one big advert for its own product. But I didn’t expect the blatant iPhone product placement throughout the film itself. Product placement is nothing new, but what shocked me was that it wasn’t even trying to be discrete. I pity children and teenagers going through playground battles about who has the coolest mobile, just as sneaker wars have affected other generations. With a predictably young audience for such a film, this wasn’t just insidious behaviour on the part of Lego and Apple, but irresponsible when considering the price of such devices. During the film, in an act of self-acknowledgement postmodernism, Lego Batman visits an orphanage to shower the children inside with Batmerch. As funny and honest as this was, the joke rang hollow by the end of the movie.

Uncomfortable post-truths

In discussing 2016 election campaigns with a student recently, I mentioned that to have a true understanding of the topic, it was necessary to research publications that they might not agree with—the Daily Mail, the Express et al. It has to be said that most of the critiques I’ve read of both the EU referendum and American Presidential election campaigns do so from a liberal arts perspective.

In considering this I proffered that, unfortunately, we might have to accept that despite any feelings of abhorrence towards the UKIP Breaking Point campaign, it was in fact a brilliant piece of propaganda on their part.

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Picture source: The Guardian

Potentially it was as defining for the Brexit vote as the Conservative’s 1979 Labour’s Not Working poster, (and there are certainly visual similarities). Equally, any such controversy about UKIP’s blatant use of xenophobia only fuels the flames of such a message to those it was aimed at, precisely because it upsets bleeding heart liberals. This train of thought bought me to an uncomfortable truth that this poster, arguably, could be crowned one of the defining images of 2016.

The museum of things

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Today I visited the Design Museum in its new Kensington home. Primarily going to see the Design of the Year 2016 show with students, being a big fan of the museum, I was also keen to see how the relocation from Shad Thames had been managed.

There is much in the move to the former Commonwealth Institute building that is impressive. It is an incredible site and there is real drama as you enter the huge atrium and look up at the stunning roof. This drama only expands as you move on up through the floors.

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As I expected, the Design of the Year show is excellent,  with some truly inspirational work on display. The exhibition benefits from the larger space with a better flow around the exhibits giving more time to linger and read each project’s background. Equally, it was good to see the collection on display under the title: Designer Maker User. I was particularly impressed with the 3 screen film that critically questioned design’s role in climate change while putting forward different views on what is to do about this dilemma. This, I felt, was the museum taking seriously criticisms that can be levelled against many sectors of design.